HELENA — This is the first of a two-part series on the 2022 races for Montana new congressional races.
Montana’s newly minted western congressional district already has six candidates vying for the open seat in 2022 – but Republican Ryan Zinke looks like the obvious front-runner, if for no other reason that every other candidate seems to be gunning for him.
All three of the Democrats in the race are taking aim at Zinke, rather than each other, calling him a corporate tool, “corrupt” or an agent for the wealthy.
And he has Republican challengers from the right, saying they’re the true conservative in the contest, suggesting Zinke is a poser who just wants his old job back.
Zinke and the other five candidates are running in Montana’s new District 1, whose boundaries were finalized two weeks ago. It covers 15 counties in western Montana and part of Pondera County, including the cities of Missoula, Kalispell, Butte, Bozeman and Hamilton.
Montana now has two congressional districts, after 30 years with only one at-large district. District 1 is an open seat, for U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., will be running for re-election in District 2, which covers central and eastern Montana.
Zinke, 60, who was elected as Montana’s congressman in 2014 and 2016 and then served two years as U.S. Interior secretary under then-President Donald Trump, so far has largely ignored his critics in the 2022 campaign, preferring instead to present himself as an “America first” candidate who wants to heal the country’s divisions.
“The biggest threat from my perspective facing this country is not Russia, it’s not China, it’s not even Iran – it’s the division in this country,” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “We’re going to have to move forward as a country, as Americans. … and, take the anger out. People are so angry.”
Yet when he talks issues, it’s standard Republican fare, hitting all the notes the national GOP already is using to bash President Biden and congressional Democrats: The “wide-open” Southern border needs to be secured, inflation is out of control, the Biden administration is overreaching on vaccine mandates, and the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill was a “trojan horse” to usher in the Left’s “Green New Deal.”
“I am all about infrastructure, but I think it was a vehicle to add other things onto it – a lot of things that we shouldn’t be adding onto an infrastructure bill, particularly the Green New Deal,” he says.
He’d also raised almost $800,000 through the end of September, putting him well ahead of any competitor – although Democrat Cora Neumann had more campaign cash on hand than Zinke on Sept. 30, $476,000 versus his $407,000.
The Democratic primary in District 1, so far, features Neumann, a health-policy expert from Bozeman, Missoula attorney Monica Tranel and former state Rep. Tom Winter, also of Missoula.
Tranel, who grew up on a ranch in eastern Montana, says she, rather than Zinke, is the person to beat in District 1, because she’s been working her whole career on behalf of Montana and clients across the political spectrum, and offers a stark contrast with Zinke.
Tranel calls Zinke part of the “modern-day copper kings” who want to rule Montana on behalf of the wealthy, opposing any policy that might help the average person.
“If he wanted to be a congress-person from Montana, he would be,” she told MTN News. “He walked away from it. He went on to greener pastures, as secretary of the Interior, and he either got fired or quit, depending on who the audience is for him. …
“We gave him a chance; he betrayed our state, he took our money, and he doesn’t want to be in Congress.”
Winter, who works for a company arranging Internet access in rural areas, says he’s the best person to tackle Zinke because when he won his only term in the state House in 2016, he won in a district carried by Trump, while still delivering a progressive message.
“I would be the only person running who would be able to bring people together, while also articulating a progressive, community-forward voice,” he said.
And Neumann, who briefly ran for the U.S. Senate in 2020 before bowing out when then-Gov. Steve Bullock became a candidate, says her resume of helping rural communities respond to health crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is what Montana voters are looking for.
“Between my personal story and my work, Montanans are looking for someone who, when the going gets tough, you go out and find solutions,” she said.
Neumann was born in Canada, lived for a while in Bozeman as a child, and also grew up in Massachusetts. She moved back to Bozeman two years ago from California, and has founded a nonprofit group called We Are Montana, which works on access to health care in rural areas.
Zinke also faces opposition in the GOP primary, from former state Sen. Al Olszewski and businesswoman and pastor Mary Todd, both of Kalispell.
Olszewski calls Zinke a “big-government Republican” and says the former congressman isn’t a reliable conservative, because he’s supported giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship, voted against voter-identification requirements and said some high-caliber weapons shouldn’t be owned by the public.
Olszweski also calls Zinke a “full-time California resident,” who hasn’t really lived in Montana since resigning his congressional seat to take the Interior secretary job in early 2017.
Zinke says he has former President Trump’s “complete and total endorsement” and has been endorsed by GOP Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.
“Last time I looked, I don’t think President Trump endorses people who aren’t conservative and people that don’t believe in the America-first policy,” Zinke said.
Zinke says he left the Interior job in early 2019 because he was paying out of his own pocket to defend himself against bogus ethical charges, and that he had become a distraction to the Trump administration’s natural-resource agenda.
“The president didn’t want me to leave, but we found a very good replacement,” he said. “After two years, I just ran out of ammunition. I think Montanans kind of get it.”
Zinke faced more than a dozen investigations as Interior secretary, and some are still pending. At least half of them found no wrongdoing or were inconclusive.
Zinke says he’s ready to rejoin the political arena and help the country regain its promise, for its citizens’ future and as a world leader.
“There are a lot of frustrated people out there watching our country and the values they grew up with, seem to be being dismantled at a record pace,” he says. “But I wouldn’t run if I didn’t think it was absolutely fixable, and it is.”
Next: In District 2, GOP incumbent Matt Rosendale has early challenger.